The Paradox of Emptiness
MyLife Essay Contest 2016
The experience of emptiness is like no other. Unlike all other emotional constructs where we feel something, feeling emptiness is essentially the awareness of not experiencing anything. It could be said that this paradoxical human experience sits at the core of all existential philosophies, religious doctrines, and spiritual searches, after all, emptiness, or nothingness is what drives us to know something. But what do we do when our drive is lost, when the absence of all meaning has vanished?
Although the philosophy of nothingness may be a nice intellectual stimulator, that’s not the intention of this work. The space being created here is to provide the struggling thinker/feeler with enough information on the Chasidic/kabalistic concepts of the “sitra achara” (the other side), and the “klippa” (shell,) so s/he can be informed of how emptiness is nothing more than the other side of something. So whether you are an intellectual looking for meaning, a skeptic questioning the lack of meaning, a deeply sensitive person that has lost all hope, or all of the above, this might be a good place to start.
The Chasidic Lens of Introspection
We live in a time in which technology has granted us the ability to gaze billions of light-years away into faraway galaxies. In fact, even without technology most of us are not even slightly fascinated when our eyes, an extraordinary and natural tool, drifts up to the sky each night to catch a glimpse of a moon that sits about 238,900 miles away. Nor do we spend too much time contemplating the ease of noticing the sun each morning as it floats 92 million miles above us. Yet with the ease we have of looking far out into the distance we can barely fathom what sits right behind the miraculous lens of the eye; It is the “I” of who we truly are.
Thankfully, the masters of Chasidic thought have provided us with an introspective language that can allow us to see what we truly are at the very core of the psyche. Only when we can begin to see within, who we truly are, can we understand what we are when we are not.
According to Chasidism, like all things that one must seek and know, finding your true self requires a tool; a proven lens that can measure self. But if we are the seeker and the sought after, what tool can we use that can be both us and not us? Here again we are faced with the paradox. And the answer is yet again a paradox.
Chasidic teachings is the extraordinary tool for gazing within. Now before you run away let us explore what this means, after all we are trying to find something using the exact object we are looking for, this is by no means an easy task, so hold on.
Leaving Emptiness and removing the shell
Step 1- Surrender. The first step out of this personal exile is ~ Surrendering to a higher state of consciousness ~ If we are both the subject and the object of this search for meaning, we might want to acknowledge that biases and flaws would surface very naturally. After all, doing it alone only left us with the feelings of emptiness. But what exactly does “surrendering to a higher state of consciousness” mean?
The Chasidic teacher the Alter Rebbe describes self as war of good and evil (chapter 1 Tanya). Simply said, our existence is a paradox and what we are comes down to two major sources. They are: Higher consciousness and lower consciousness, or in the Rebbe own words “the godly soul,” which wants us to survive, to be connected, and to be one with god, and our “animalistic soul” can be destruct, can disconnect us, and force us away from the godly soul. The feeling of emptiness is just one side of an opposing war for self; a war between life and death; self and other; man and god; and most importantly here, between higher and lower consciousness. What the Rebbe demonstrates is, if mastering your holy/godly soul is how we find connection to self, other, and god, we need to let go of our need to hold on to lower consciousness and surrender to our godly soul.
Being that at the very root of self we are opposites; both the subject and object matter, both the one surrendering from our lower self and the one surrendering to our higher self, as well as both singular and part of the communal, we need to let go of the idea that we will overcome it alone and instead realize that part of higher consciousness is contained within anyone who has mastered this wisdom. Here, Chasidic teaching is a generous gift to the one who wants to surrender. But only we can choose to surrender, as the saying goes “Find [for] yourself a teacher.”
By surrendering, we acknowledge that we are intellectually blind. Without a working understanding of what we are, we either have to learn a new way knowing or we slip into lack of surrender. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi calls this the “Sitra Achra” (Hebrew transliteration for the “other side” (lessons in Tanya p 102). He explains that the other side is just the side that is not holy, and “the side of holiness is nothing but the indwelling and extension of God (P103). In other words, when we are not ourselves we are not something else, we are simply not us; not connected to the truth of our reality. Note that the “other side” is used as an antagonistic presence, or better yet, a lack of presence.
Now, if we have both sides contained within us, why on earth would anyone want to go to the “other side,” the side of emptiness, when they can have the real thing something? This now brings us to step two, the essence of this essay.
Step 2-removing the shell. Why would we want to run away from self? Would we want to have an illusory substitute image of the ones we love, or do we want to hold them in our hands? As we pointed out above, chassidus explains that when we do not know how to have the real thing, when we are blind of godliness/ higher consciousness, we are on the other side by default. And how does one acquire the exact thing they do not know exists? Chassidus would say that we need not acquire anything. As it turns out, we are the thing that we think does not exist and instead of having to go out and seek something “out there” all we need to do is Remove the shell of self.
We are “out there” feeling emptiness in the “other side” and all we need to do is be “right here,” remove our covering, and we have all of godliness.
“When you are distressed, and all these things happen upon you in the end of days, then you will return to your God” (Devarim – Deuteronomy – 4:30).
So what exactly is this Shell that covers and how do we remove it? To dig right into the center of this question, we should provide ourselves with just a little more data on “the other side.” Essentially, the “other side” is chassidus’ understanding of the concept “sin.” [Note: Understanding that the word “Sin” has a negative connotation, I want to sacrifice this space to plea with you to keep an open mind. This word is a translation, and could be called “separation” if you will]. The shell that covers true reality is a formation that’s evolves from sin/separation. In other words, the “other side” is fundamentally a non-place of existence that we ourselves enter into (so to speak) when we do whatever it is that separates us from truth. If this is true, if it is true that we create our own emptiness by sinning, why on havens earth would anyone sin?
The Talmud has answered this by stating that “no man commits a sin unless a spirit [or energy] of folly enters him” (Sotah 3a). It would seem like madness to consciously want to separate from someone you love. It seems even madder to want to separate from the only thing we really have; god/reality. And yet, this is exactly what we do every time we choose to act in a way that is untruthful to ourselves, even emptiness and deep feelings of depression don’t stop us, in fact they only make the urge stronger bringing yet more emptiness. As chassidus points out, “the reward for a mitzvah (justly/positive action) is brought about by the mitzvah itself…[And the consequence for an Averah ( unjustly/destructive action) is brought about by the Averah itself (Tanya ch. 37). In other words, the reward of connecting to self is being fully connected with true reality and the harsh consequence of being untruthful to self is separation. Due to folly, we become stuck in a never-ending cycle, separating us from true reality, and creating a shell that only gets thicker.
In his Discourrse “Basi LeGani” Yosef Y. Schneerson addresses this issue by stating that the objective of folly is to desensitize ones sensitivity and being that “The spirit of folly derives from the Kelipah: (lit. “Shell” or “peel”), from the unholy side of creation…it covers over truth” (p. 14). Yosef Y. Schneerson is teaching us that like a peel of an orange that conceals the fruit within, this folly, this madness conceals the self from experiencing true light from the divine, to the point that we do not feel the disconnect (p. 15). It seems that according to chasiduth there is a part of us that when hungry instead of learning how to peel the orange we go and watch a video of someone eating. This ends up separating us from our food, through illusion, and in the long run ends up killing us spiritually (feelings of meaninglessness), and often even physically, for example, drug addiction where the addict finds a destructive substitution for his spirituality ( C. Jung, I will send source for this).
Now that we know that there is an energy/folly that wants us to sin, it is no wonder we are empty. We are being forced away from ourselves. We can now better understand why we would run away from ourselves and instead seek a substitution for life force that turns out being the thing that kills off what we were looking for. Or in the words of Yosef Y. Schneerson “G-d desired that the world be created in order that it be refined…instead, the [other side] effects the exact opposite” (p 16). We can also now better understand another Chasidic concept: When one commits a sin punishable by Kares (excision). He is not being punished for doing bad, rather he is being separated simply by not connecting, and hence the saying “your sins have made a separation between yourselves and your G-d (Yehayahu 59:2. P. 19). Would we truly know that we were really killing ourselves off we would never do it, and because we do not know we continue to cover ourselves and the shell of concealment becomes yet thicker.
So how do we remove the shell and stop running from ourselves?
Essentially, we are not running away from ourselves nor are we running towards anything. We are just not being in pure reality, in godliness, and in turn we are simply on the other side. Sinning is not us attempting to run, rather it is us attempting to find ourselves in a dark room with no light. Like the one who could not peel the orange, sinning that leads to emptiness is to settle for the illusory substitute, the other side, the side that is not reality but the side that is best to nothing. Sinning is trying to surrender to god without a clue of how to do it so instead we surrender to something else, it just happens to be that the “something else” is not something at all, leaving us with emptiness and eventually nothingness.
According to the Tanya, when we can begin to notice that literally every positive action (and even thought) connects us to our true reality, when we realize that the connection to self and God is what there is when there is no shell, when we grasp that as our positivity expands the shell begins to crack, well, just wait for it. Removing the shell can also be done by cessation (or at least a progressive regression) of sinful acts (or acts and thoughts that separate us). When we slowly, one act at a time, change our thoughts and behavior, the shell naturally peels away.
Now just Imagine what would happen if we combine positive action with regression of negativity.
About the Author
Chaim Kind has spent most of his life diving into Kabalistic philosophies, western psychology, world religions, and both eastern and western spirituality. His root is in the Jewish tradition and his soul in the human tradition. After obtaining his B.A. in Psychology from UNLV, he is now concluding his M.A. in psychology and spirituality at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also works in the Spiritual Psychology Lab. Chaim is currently in the process of writing a book about the seekers subjective spiritual experience. Contact Chaim: email@example.com